Why I changed my mind about homosexuality and the church

I have the honor of sitting in the same little office that Bishop Ken Carder vacated when he left Duke.  I also teach the class that Ken helped to create on mission.  Stanley Hauerwas and I dedicated one of our books to Ken, as a sign of our admiration for him and his ministry.

As usual, Ken thinks clearly and theologically in this piece on “Why I changed My Mind.”  As we slouch toward our historic special General Conference in February of 2020, it’s good to see a bishop stand up and speak up in helping he church think clearly about these matters.  I commend Ken’s thoughtful witness to you.

Will Willimon


As a delegate to the United Methodist General Conferences in 1984 and 1988, I voted to reaffirm and expand the restrictive language regarding homosexuality. I did so out of sincere conviction as the right thing to do, even though the issue was an abstraction to me. I knew no one who was admittedly gay, and the notion of same-sex attraction was foreign to my experience.

I now deeply regret those votes! Over the intervening thirty years, I have changed my mind and now support the removal of all restrictive language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline here. The following are the factors that contribute to my change of mind.

First, I got to know people who fall into the category of “homosexual.” I came to realize that many of them had long been in my circle of relationships but were afraid to share this important component of their identity. Some are beloved members of my own family!

Many are faithful, devoted, life-long church members who can’t be open within the body of Christ for fear of rejection and condemnation. Some are parents of LGBTQ children who shared stories of bullying and abuse of their kids.

A few were colleagues on the staff of congregations I served, and their ministries reflected the qualifications identified by John Wesley—grace, gifts, and fruits. Many were exceptionally gifted, devoted seminary students whose call to ordained ministry seemed evident to me.

Some are people in same-sex marriages who are committed Christians and faithful to the church, faithful to one another, and faithful to Christ, and who possess “the gifts of the Spirit.”

Hearing the painful stories of these beloved children of God cut me to the quick. The issue of sexual orientation was no longer a theological or ethical abstraction. It became embodied in people I loved, from whom I learned, in whom I experienced God’s grace-filled presence!

Secondly, the evidence is overwhelming that sexual orientation is not a choice. I have yet to meet a heterosexual who can tell me when he/she decided to be attracted to the opposite sex; nor have I met a gay person who decided to be attracted to persons of the same sex.

Sexual identity and desire are complex realities with biological, social, environmental, and psychological components. While the Discipline labels “the practice” of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” the implication is that a person’s being is contrary to the Christian gospel. That is incompatible with our doctrine of creation.

Thirdly, by the 1992 General Conference I had not only begun to change my mind about the language of incompatibility and exclusion, I had become convinced that legislation is the wrong way to deal with the issue.

The pivotal decision was made in 1972 when the language of incompatibility was added to the Social Principles Study Commission Report, by an amendment from the floor with limited debate.

The consequence of that political parliamentary action has disproportionately dominated subsequent General Conference agendas and expanded legislative restrictions. It now threatens to split the denomination.

We have legislated ourselves into a box, maybe into a regrettable schism. Whatever our position on this issue, legislative action will not resolve it!

Fourthly, I came to realize more fully the meaning of Martin Luther King’s words in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

During my first eight years as a member of the Council of Bishops, I was deeply immersed in the Initiative on Children and Poverty. I felt that the persistent discussion of homosexuality within the Council and other denominational circles was distracting us from fully addressing economic injustice.

I shared my concern with a friend, a theological consultant to the Initiative. His response lodged my conscience: “But, Ken, you can’t portion God’s justice for one group and ignore it for another.”

I realize that some injustices are beyond our ability to remedy immediately, but to ignore those that are within our immediate sphere of influence cannot be excused. By removing the discriminatory language, we can take an immediate step toward correcting an injustice inflicted on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

Fifthly, I’m convinced that the discrimination against LGBTQ people is being justified by inadequate biblical interpretation. I’ve read arguments from the Bible used by southern preachers to justify slavery, and I see a similar hermeneutic operating in support exclusion of gay persons.

Using the Bible to support misguided causes is a long-standing scandal in the church. Scripture has been used to justify such evils as the Crusades, genocide, slavery, the subordination of women, persecution of scientists, and burning of “heretics.”

I firmly, unapologetically believe in the primacy and authority of Scripture! What we mean by “the authority of Scripture” determines how we use it.

Here is my understanding: The authority of Scripture lies in its authentic witness to God’s mighty acts of salvation supremely in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in its power through the Holy Spirit within community to transform individuals, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos into the likeness of Christ.

The test of commitment to the authority of Scripture is this: Is it shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ and enabling us to love as Christ loves and to witness to his present and coming reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality, and joy?

The influence of the Gospel over the centuries has enabled us to see Scripture through the lens of the Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ. Such a lens enables us to avoid misusing some troubling passages in the Bible.

Three glaring examples: massacring of religious opponents as did Elijah with the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18:40); slavery which was taken for granted in many Old and New Testament narratives; and women keeping silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Finally, my understanding and experience of what it means to love as Christ loves has deepened and widened over the years. People whom society relegates to the margins have taught me about the nature, depth, and expanse of God’s love. I have experienced profound faith among the incarcerated, the homeless, the frail elderly, orphans, immigrants, the poor, and LGBTQ persons.

I have met the Crucified and Risen Christ in my relationships with those whom society treats as “outcasts.” I know from experiences with them that Christ has broken down ALL dividing walls between us. Paul makes it clear:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

ALL includes gays and straights, LGBTQ and heterosexuals, “progressives” and “traditionalists.” Christ died for ALL, includes ALL, and invites ALL to “love one another as I have loved you.”

It is the quality of our love and its imitation of Christ’s love that is definitive, not gender or sexual orientation. As committed couples, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be able to love each other in ways mutually fulfilling to them, as surely as we who are heterosexual.

I’m still growing in my understanding and my ability to love as Christ loves. God grant me the humility to keep learning and growing toward the fullness of God’s perfect love!

 

“Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church” originally appeared at Shifting Margins.

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30 thoughts on “Why I changed my mind about homosexuality and the church

  1. That’s all well and good . I came to the same conclusions you did about homosexuality —with the help of my gay son who obviously did not “ choose” this “ lifestyle .” In fact , what you wrote , word for word, could have been written by me .

    My question at this point is this: if you can see the injustice of treating homosexuals with disdain , if you have the capacity to study the issue with both scholarly objectivity and compassion , then why can’t you use the same qualities to examine the issue of why it is unbiblical and unchristian to have people like you “ lording it over” other Christians ? The very office of bishop itself is an injustice that keeps people codependent and fearful.

    Personally , like every other UMC bishop I’ve ever encountered, i think you love the power and adulation too much .

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  2. The same character traits have been ascribed to pedophiles and sexual perverts of all kinds. Indeed, did you know that 30 percent of the population uses the Internet almost exclusively for porn? And that a third of searches by women about their husbands suggests that
    he has homosexual tendencies? Read the book Everybody Lies. So, perversion is commonplace And, what do you think? That Christians cease to sin? Therefore, sin is justified? When identical twins are separated at birth, when one is homosexual there’s a 50% chance the other will be. You rightly say various factors are involved. But, you wrongly suggest there is no choice. Perhaps, you should spend time as a prison chaplain. Or, listen to teens discuss sexual experimentation in this day of anything goes. The same could be said for many sins we do not accept. Finally, you seem to lack understanding of biblical historical contexts, as well as our own. These are serious deficiencies in making the attempted argument. But, as is typical today, it is driven by emotion and devoid of actual data, facts, and reason.

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    • Jon, you realize that when you claim it is a “choice,” what you are saying is that you are convicted in the belief that you could wake up tomorrow morning and “decide” to be gay. I’d suggest some unresolved issues in your life that could benefit from professional help. Obviously, there’s something going on based on your belief that you could just choose to be gay.

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  3. I have no issue with accepting LBGTQ individuals into the community. My struggle is reconciling 1 Corinthians 6:9 and other passages clearly condemning homosexual activity as sin with the position that we must bless homosexual couples and perform same sex marriages. Acceptance of the sinner yes, for we are all sinners. Blessing and condoning the sin, no.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Thx Will. So finely articulated and theologically nuanced in a most useful manner for those of us who believe this but must be careful given the circles we move in. I still chuckle at your story about the college newspaper guy who asked for your perspective on homosexuality. You told them you believed everything Jesus said about the topic. They printed it!! 👌👌

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  5. Excellent.
    It wasn’t until late in my life that I really got to know anyone who was homosexual.
    I know several now, mostly through church, and the gay friends I have now are some of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.
    We can learn at any age, no matter what may have been ingrained on us in the Sunday Schools of the 50’s

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  6. Will, in this age of Trump, I have grown to appreciate the UMC’s social witness, particularly in the area of race and civil rights where conservative Presbyterians (and others) have so often failed. But it won’t surprise that I have to differ with your endorsement of Bishop Carder’s thoughts here. You know all the arguments already so I won’t repeat them, but I am trying to be fair minded and consistent in pointing out error when I see, whether from right or left. That said, you know I will be praying for the UMC as you meet over the next couple of years. The UMC is a great church with a mighty witness for Christ, and I pray He will give you all the wisdom and humility to rightly interpret and obey His word, preaching repentance and grace, come what may. Your brother, Chris H.

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  7. To deny sinful acts as sin we give humans a false sense of security and will ultimately lead them to Hell because we have taken the conviction of the law away and denied the change God through Jesus Christ is able to make in a persons life.

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  8. I would be more impressed with Ken Carter if he meant all the things he said and had the courage of his convictions. My experience with him that he is out to first protect the institution above all else. Nearly 10 years ago my UMC in Tampa, by a vote of the Church Council, and with much support from the Congregation (and no real opposition) adopted a policy of having a non-discrimination statement cut and pasted directly from the BoD which includes sexual orientation. It was to be on the website and printed materials where it would be appropriate.

    Despite the language coming directly from the BoD, the most recent Pastor assigned unilaterally removed it and claimed it violates the order. The DS was uninterested in addressing the issue, so a complaint to Bishop Carter ultimately resolved with him agreeing the statement was not a violation, that the Pastor could not unilaterally undo a “legal” action by the Church Council, but he was going to let it stand anyway. With all due respect, I’m hardly as enamored of Ken Carter as you are.

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  10. Pingback: Homosexuality and Hermeneutical Process | Kiwianglo's Blog

  11. No one’s sin is any worse than another person’s sin. aka Your sin is no better than someone else’s. We all fall short on his glory and grace.

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  12. I think the main tenets of the Gospel is to love as Christ loved. Christ loved unconditionally and was always able to see the heart of a person under the sin or the wounded places they operated out of. As humans with limited understanding we can argue our beliefs until eternity. I believe we are called to love but we are not called to agree with everyone if our hearts and understandings of God and science lead us in different directions. My problems is how the tables have so drastically turned and how those who support gay marriages turn and so quickly condemn the others who disagree with them. They are the ones I see now not loving – if you don’t agree with them you are evil….How blind they are. Are they not saying that those who call the LBGT life style evil as unloving and accepting. Why can they not see the log in their own condemning eyes when they practically demand that you accept their position or be condemned as evil or labeled other names. If we are all in fact called to love each other we need to find ways to love those we disagree with and not push your thoughts and beliefs on another. This is what those who believe in traditional marriage have been condemned for – pushing their beliefs upon the LGBT communities. If wrong is wrong then it is wrong for all. How I wish people would get off their soap boxes and start loving for real…in the everyday person you meet. This labeling and placing individuals in specific tribes or groups is causing our country to implode as it continues with more and more divisions and the lack of accepting people just where they are without all the signs and banners. Jesus loved individuals one person at a time – what if we ALL did that everyday!
    I know what I believe and I am convinced by a number of factors. I know what you believe and are convinced of as well. How about I pray for you and you pray for me and we once again live where we can agree to disagree in love. Let’s live in humility realizing we don’t have everything right all the time and get out of arrogance thinking we do. we are responsible for our own conscious.

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  13. Hi Will,

    I admit I expected to read something different and was looking forward to it when you introduced this post as someone thinking clearly and theologically. Instead, I find the same general appeals to emotion and experience that I find everywhere in “Why I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality” articles. The six pieces of support listed here all rely heavily on logical leaps or fallacies. Where would polyamory fail the test Bishop Carder has provided here?

    I would love to see more clear, theological and biblical engagements of this question––especially ones that providing an intellectually compelling case for full inclusion and affirmation of same-sex marriage. But I expect articles like this only to sway those who are looking to be swayed and confuse the emotional case presented here as the theological support they need to make the leap.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Teddy, I believe he did note, broadly, that he changed his mind about how the clobber verses should be interpreted, but I think this forum would not be the place to try to unfold all of that in a meaningful way, and it has been well done by a number of authors (some of which you listed). I suspect he simply did not see the need to go into a book-length discourse of his theological and biblical reasoning. Perhaps it was influenced by some of the references you provided.

      I hate to put words into another’s mouth, but I read this as more a listing of the thought process that brought him to the conclusion (the perspectives he took in examining the topic) and less the specific arguments he developed in each of his perspectives.

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  14. I believe the bishop has to rethink about his decision about homosexuality permission in the work of God. Bishop is a theological scholar that knows the holy scripture very well. Our emotion has to separated from the commandments of God. God is not a liar like us. I have been enjoy many of the book he has written and published. But on this issue of homosexuality is a thing that God hate from the beginning of the creation. The Lord show His love to the prostitution woman cut in adultery which we always used to support any of our sinful bad-natured.

    Jesus Christ warned the woman that caught in this destructive immoral, go, and sin no more (John 8:11). The church of Christ is to love each other. God did not permit anyone to use his dwelling place as a place of sin. We should not compromise our lust emotion with the things of God. Let the person practising homosexuality repent from their sin and come to the Lord for forgiveness.

    The House of God must not be polluted. God created male and female from the beginning and show his love and blessed them to be fruitful and multiply. If God has created man and man to marry each other, as we are using our knowledge and wisdom to change the commandments of God, there will be no multiplication as are seen today in every nation.

    God did not permit gay marriage. it is an abomination and death for those that practice such unclean and sinful bad-natured. God is not a respecter of nobody (2 Chronicles 19:7, Acts 10:34, 1 peter 1:17) . We should not accept what God has forbidden in his church and our nation. Let the homosexual people confess their sin, repent, and come back to their creator. You can not received Christ as Lord and personal saviour and you are still disobeying his commandments. It is a sin.

    God said in the book of Romans 1: 18-32 that l whoever is practising any thing like homosexuality and other related sins have no place in him.

    Romans 1: 18-32

    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

    19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.

    20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

    21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

    22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

    23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things.

    24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:

    25 Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

    26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:

    27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

    28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;

    29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,

    30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,

    31 Without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:

    32 Who knowing the judgement of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

    Bishop do not restructure any God church doctrines that has been assigned for church regulation of his ministers and members. Heaven is watching for your sudden changes. Do not lose that crown awaiting for you. Let them change. We must not allowed them in our congregation except they confess and change from their sins. Bring them to the Lord to change their lives. Let your sermon be of cross message and nothing more. God bless you sir.

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  15. Unlike so many who will no doubt applaud this, I won’t. As was pointed out above, a lot of the reasoning appears emotionally based. Surrendering to the man-made god of love, is not surrender to the God who is love. The LGBT church can hardly be called a Christian church, any more than the German Christians, who watered down theology and surrendered themselves and their theology to the ideological overlords of their day. As Karl Barth noted, we must not confuse love for God, with love for neighbour, for if we do, we end up deifying our neighbour. It neither helps them, loves them, or is an example of walking in the footsteps of Christ. I admit, this is a complex issue, but if beloved family cannot respect, tolerant and be inclusive of a loving “no”, built on convictions drawn from biblical truth, tried and true healthy tradition, and biological science. Then I would question whether appeasement of them; and a happy ignorance of the consequences such as the fatherless and motherless children who will come after them (among other things), was only self-serving, and not truly loving. I fear this appeasement is a surrender to Natural Theology, and as such, I am reluctant to applaud those well-respected and esteemed theologians who, not only sign onto it, but take its oath in servitude to it.

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  16. Dr. Willimon, I am a Presbyterian Minister and was first introduced to you through the ministry of Michael Horton. I have appreciated your writing and your public ministry. I just purchased the revised edition of your book Pastor. Sir, I am shocked at what you write above and about your surprising change of position. You have stood firm for truth in so many ways at so many times. I did not expect this. I will praying that you repent of your decision and return to a Biblical conviction. I offer this link for you and other who may read these comments. https://fnohb.home.blog/2019/02/28/gods-voice-versus-revoice/ Thank you sir.

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    • As Susan B. Anthony says, “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” Try a little soul-searching Rev. Carmichael.

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  17. So I keep hearing “bible teachers” make the argument in favor of tolerating, accepting and allowing certain sexual practices for Christians and in the Church. However, at the same time I read stories of other more common but unacceptable sexual social practices that are clearly someone else’s illicit preference.

    You just can’t have it both ways, because eventually both ways will need to include everybody’s ways.

    Be careful…you are in the process of being handed over to what you asked for, but once you get it, may not be what you wanted. Not as an individual, or couple, or small group or a community, country, culture or a church. Which of course is not a church but the anti-church.

    The consequences will be devastating and the results will be a circus of paganism for which there may be little to no opportunity for restoration.

    I can’t believe the number of those who are professing to be “biblically” wise and yet sound off as profound fools.

    The infestation comes from a legion of unclean, evil, and perverse spirits. The humans that are being trafficked in all sorts of sexual perversion by the unseen enemy are trapped, lied to and eventually destroyed as the image of God is desecrated in them.

    The humans that are duped by the lies of The Liar need to be salvaged from the moral erosion. Many will continue in their blind arrogance and defiance, but love must continue to be for them, but hate must be against all that seeks to capture and destroy them. We must as authentic Christians love what is good and hate what is evil…souls are in the balance, not just for an eternal count, but for a healthy life lived here on earth.

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    • My goodness…having been gay all of my 60 years of life, let me just say…someone’s dealing with some unresolved sexual issues here. Please Michael, seek some professional help for yourself.

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      • You are, Rod, absolutely correct about my intolerance. When a person is trying to make an entire group of people an “other” based on an immutable characteristic, and keep them from participating in the entire life of the church…I am intolerant of that. It has no place Christendom. I don’t know about you, but I’m not even sure what you’re talking about with your “the LGBT church.” What do you claim that to be? Personally, I’m a cradle Methodist, and as hard as people like you want to leave, I’m not.

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